Monday, November 26, 2007

The Office Around the Corner

I re-watched Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner recently, and while I love it even more than I used to, I find that I now love it for new and different reasons. I used to think of it as the ultimate romantic comedy, but now I think the romance is almost a secondary thing in this film (I said almost), a smaller part of a larger subject. What this movie is about is work, and everyday life in the workplace; it's one of the few truly great workplace comedies.

Right from the opening scene, where the shop employees arrive for work one after another, the movie is about work: the first conversation, between Pirovich (Felix Bressart) and Pepi (William Tracy) is an argument about whether it makes any sense to arrive for work early ("Who sees you? Me. And who sees me? You. Can we give each other a raise? No."), and the first twenty minutes of the movie are mostly about workplace politics, getting in good with the boss or getting in trouble with him, the dangers of office gossip, and so on. Except for the one scene with Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) mentioning his anonymous love-letter writing, The Shop Around the Corner presents itself as a movie about the workplace experience. Not a fantasy version of it, or a sentimental "working people" version, or the workplace nightmare from Billy Wilder's The Apartment (or for that matter the Lubitsch If I Had a Million sketch that was the basis for the look of the office in The Apartment), but just the everyday reality of people who need to work and can't afford to lose their jobs. It's not a depressing reality; Matuschek (Frank Morgan) isn't a bad boss and the job isn't bad, but it's just a reality that underlies everything the characters do: they have to work, they spend much of their time at work, and their choices are constrained by basic economic realities.

And the romantic comedy has extra depth because it takes place in this real atmosphere of the workplace, between two people who have real-world work problems on their minds and often argue over work issues. Stewart even says that he started the anonymous correspondence because he couldn't afford to buy a set of encyclopedias and he needed a cheaper way to learn about "cultural subjects." Stewart and Margaret Sullavan's first argument in the movie are over mundane everyday work issue: questions of what clothes are appropriate to wear to work, questions of who has authority over whom.

Lubitsch and his favorite writer Samson Raphaelson filled Shop with all kinds of moments that really ring true, such as the uncomfortable situation of having your boss ask you for your opinion, or trying to get permission to get off from work early so you can go on a date, or dealing with bosses and co-workers in a bad mood, or the rituals and routines that retail workers have to go through when a potential customer comes in. The characters are even defined, in some scenes, by their differing reactions to typical workplace situations. When Frank Morgan has a bad idea, each character deals with it in his own way: Jimmy Stewart tells him straight out that it's a bad idea, Margaret Sullavan, desperate to please Morgan so he'll give her a job, tries to find something nice to say even though she can't think of anything specific she likes about it; office scumbag Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) sucks up and tells Morgan exactly what he wants to hear, and Felix Bressart's character, a man who will do anything to avoid losing his job, just runs away and hides any time he hears Morgan asking for an "honest opinion."

Most romantic comedies, including Lubitsch's, are about people who either don't have to work or for whom work is a secondary concern. Here it's at the heart of everything. S many key moments in the film have extra resonance because of that real atmosphere of workplace politics, like when Felix Bressart, a character who is deathly afraid of losing his job and constantly worries about making ends meet for his family (including paying for doctors when family members are sick; the high cost of medical care is just something he matter-of-factly deals with as an everday problem) admonishes Frank Morgan for firing Jimmy Stewart: the moment could be small, but instead it's a big moment because we know how fearful this man is of saying anything that might cost him his job.

I'd compare The Shop Around the Corner, in a weird way, to the U.S. version of The Office. There are few other comedies that are comparable in the way they portray the workplace: not an abusive nightmare you have to escape from, not a sweet and idealized place, just a place with normal frustrations and problems and politics and worries -- our workplace, in other words, no matter who we are or where we happen to work. Whether that means that John Krasinski is the new Jimmy Stewart is another question entirely.

The only other version of this material that really tried to do the same thing in terms of being about the working life -- and not coincidentally, the best subsequent version of this story -- was the Broadway musical version, She Loves Me.

(Note: Much of this post is recycled from something I wrote on a message board. So those of you who search to find out what I've been writing on message boards will no doubt be rolling your eyes and wanting something new.)


Bill Crider said...

The other day I heard the 30-minute radio version of this a couple of days ago. The argument about the clothing was the centerpiece, and, as you can imagine, there wasn't a lot more to it.

Jeff said...

Slightly off-topic: though "She Loves Me" has a truly delightful score, can we all agree that it's the lamest excuse for a title any musical version of an earlier property has ever had? "Oklahoma!" is so much better than "Green Grow the Lilacs"; ditto "Carousel"/"Lilliom." Even "My Fair Lady" isn't bad. But "She Loves Me"?

How many other musicals could also have had that title? "Carousel," for one.